Here’s this week’s episode of The Port City Chronicle, the continuing serial novel of Gretchen, a 46-year-old criminal defense lawyer, and her family and friends, seeking love and happiness in Portland the hard way:
“The stewardess spoke German to me,” Grace said, as we moved slowly down the aisle toward our seats at the back of the plane on our way to Germany. It wasn’t that surprising since on the outside Grace has long blond hair and blue eyes. Inside she hates anything that smacks of order and discipline, at least for its own sake.
“What did she say?” I asked.
“I don’t know. I’m pretty sure she said Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.”
That was how Grace managed to achieve disorder in an overly ordered world.
Anyway, she didn’t actually speak any German, unlike myself, hence the name Gretchen. From listening to my grandparents when I was little, I spoke just enough to annoy people.
But as it turned out, the most annoyed person was Grace, who saw no reason for me to speak to anyone in the first place. There was no need to ask anyone where to go or how to get there if we just let Munich happen to us rather than forcing ourselves on it.
Unfortunately for me, the first thing that happened to us was the Museum Brandhorst, Munich’s contemporary art museum, where there was an exhibit on Andy Warhol. Rightly or wrongly, I don’t think of Andy Warhol as German, partly because he’s not on the list of top ten sights in Munich if you have only a day to see the city.
Ignoring my anxiety about failing to see Munich before I die, Grace made her way slowly through the museum’s collection of 100 Warhols, including a twenty-minute film of Edie Sedgwick lying motionless on a bathroom floor with her head in a toilet. After letting that happen to us, she moved on to a series of ten-minute films on a loop, including one in which Warhol interviewed several male models who also were neither German nor in Germany.
“Let’s watch this one,” Grace said eagerly, putting on one set of headphones and handing me the other.
I was getting desperate. “I can’t,” I said. “I’m afraid I might get an erection.”
Having thus put the damper on contemporary art, I managed to maneuver Grace out the door toward one of the actual sights on the top ten list for Munich, the Englischer Garden, where an oompah band in lederhosen was playing in a giant outdoor beer garden in anticipation of Oktoberfest.
“I’m going to have a beer,” I said, sitting down at one of the long tables and gesturing to a waitress in a dirndl. Since drinking in a beer garden was also on my list, I figured we were finally really getting somewhere, knocking off two items at once.
But Grace would not force herself on Munich.
“I’m not,” she said.
“You’ll just sit here then?” I asked desperately.
She nodded. “I’ll just sit here and gulp air.”
Then she reminded me how fattening a giant stein of beer is even if Germans do drink it like water. After all, we’d spent nearly a whole day sitting on planes and in airports without any exercise.
I gazed longingly at the beer mugs at the other end of the table, glowing like lanterns with a frothy yellow light.
“You can actually reduce your stomach fat by good posture even when you’re just sitting,” I said, “if you keep your back straight and your stomach in. Apparently it can work wonders.”
I needed that beer to relax after a tough 12 months of work. Or maybe just to relax about our vacation.
She smirked at me knowingly. “But that’s hard to remember to do, don’t you think? A lot of times when I’m sitting I’m also doing something else.”
I skipped the beer and ordered Speck instead at the waitress’s suggestion. It wasn’t on my list but I figured it probably should be if that’s what the real Germans were eating.
Unfortunately, it turned out to be a tough slab of cured meat that we could barely get down.
“Actually once you get used to it it’s like meat chewing gum,” I said hopefully, hacking off a chunk for Grace. “I guess we should have ordered the leberknodeln instead.”
“Next time,” she said.
I gnawed at the Speck frantically. “It’s unlikely we’ll be in this place again in our life-times.”
“Not in your life-time anyway,” she said.
By the time we got back to our hotel, we had mere hours left in Munich with seven sights unseen.
“Which of these would you do?” I asked the concierge, darting nervous glances at Grace.
“It’s hard to say,” the concierge said flatly. “I don’t know you that well.”
But at least she seemed friendlier toward us as we left the next morning. I surmised it was due to me speaking some German.
“She was so mean before,” I said to Grace, hoping to make a point. “Why do you think she got so nice?”
“I don’t know,” Grace said. “Maybe meeting us really changed her. Maybe she sees everything in a whole new light.”
Fortunately, we were headed to the Bavarian Alps, where it was a lot harder to miss the sights, considering they were nearly 3,000 meters high.
We spent the next week walking from village to village on paths through alpine meadows and forests, a far cry from the hustle and bustle of city life, whether Munich or work-a-day Portland.
On the third day, on the side of the Wildmoos Alm, we came upon several reclining wooden chairs looking out over the valley.
Grace sat down on one of them and leaned back. She gestured lazily toward the other one. “Watch out, there’s a bee on that one.”
“He has to sit right in the middle?” I said, finally locating him.
I shook the chair. “Why doesn’t he leave?”
“Maybe he’s relaxing,” she said, her eyes closing.
I shook it again. “I think he must be dead.”
“No, he just fluttered his wings a little,” she murmured.
But a few days later I too at last was finally on vacation, floating motionlessly with Grace on the surface of the Eibsee at the foot of the Alps. As I gazed up at the mountains, I heard an American couple on the path above the lake, stopping to take a picture of us.
“What do you see?” the wife asked.
“Just some Germans,” the man said. “Doing what they do.”